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SVS: Freedom (What Is It?)
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Freedom: What Is It?

Thomas Jefferson defined liberty this way:

Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

A very good start, but I'd like to amend Jefferson's formulation slightly. Freedom is the ability of an agent to think or act according to its will, without duress or threat of harm.

I'm not sure in this context whether Jefferson considered duress a form of obstruction, but it seemed necessary to make that clarification. An agent may not be free because of some physical obstruction or, as is much more common, because acting in a way in which they want to they will be harmed by another agent or group. The difference is between being tied to a chair, and thus unable to stand, and being unbound by ropes, but having a gun pointed at your head and being told that if you stand, you will be shot. In the second case, you are physically capable of standing, but the threat of harm restricts your freedom to do so. Some philosophers split the concept of freedom or liberty into two classes based on this distinction, calling them positive liberty and negative liberty. I see the need to clarify the two cases, but no need to divide the concept of freedom.

I've also included in the definition the capacity of an agent to think. This may seem strange. Thoughts are private, are they not? How could an agent or group interfere with one's capacity to think a particular way? With some reflection, it is clear that certain interrogation techniques clearly restrict one's ability to think. If you are kept in a locked cell, you are restricted from physically leaving, but you may think whatever you want. Unless loud music or a high-pitched siren is wailing in your cell at all hours.

Thus, freedom for an agent entails not only freedom of action, but freedom of thought.

An important distinction that Jefferson makes is between liberty and rightful liberty. It is best summed up by the quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes that "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Thus all agents have a sphere of freedom which extends to the extent that it interferes with the freedom of others.

Like the concepts of Truth and Structure, Freedom is also neither absolute nor binary. One is neither free nor enslaved, but some degree of being free along a continuum. Obviously, in a community, one is restricted by the freedom of others.

The next section will discuss what it means to value freedom.

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